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Charlie Chaplin

220px-Charlie_Chaplin_portrait

Charlie Chaplin – The Circus (1928)

 

Charlie’s Tramp character finds himself at a circus where he is promptly gets chased around by the police who think he is a pickpocket. Running into the bigtop, he is an accidental sensation with his hilarious efforts to elude the police. The ringmaster/owner immediately hires him, but discovers the Tramp cannot be funny on purpose, so he takes advantage of the situation by making the Tramp a janitor just happens to always in the Bigtop at showtime. Unaware of this exploitation, the Tramp falls for the owner’s lovely acrobatic daughter, who is abused by her father. His chances seem good, until a dashing rival comes in and Charlies feels he has to compete with him. Written by Kenneth Chisholm (kchishol@home.com) 

Portrait c. 1920

Sir Charles Spencer “Charlie” ChaplinKBE (16 April 1889 – 25 December 1977) was a British comic actor and filmmaker who rose to fame in the silent era. Chaplin became a worldwide icon through his screen persona “the Tramp” and is considered one of the most important figures of the film industry. His career spanned more than 75 years, from a child in the Victorian era to close to his death at the age of 88, and encompassed both adulation and controversy.

Raised in London, Chaplin’s childhood was defined by poverty and hardship. He was sent to a workhouse twice before the age of nine; his father was absent, and his mother was committed to a mental asylum. Chaplin began performing from a young age, touring music halls and later working as a stage actor and comedian. At 19 he was signed to the prestigious Fred Karno company, which took him to America. Chaplin was scouted by the film industry, and made his first appearances in 1914 with Keystone Studios. He soon developed the Tramp persona and formed a large fan base. Chaplin directed his films from an early stage, and continued to hone his craft as he moved to the EssanayMutual, and First National corporations. By 1918, he was one of the most famous men in the world.

In 1919, Chaplin co-founded the distribution company United Artists, giving him complete control over his films. His first feature-length picture was The Kid (1921), followed by A Woman of Paris (1923), The Gold Rush (1925), and The Circus (1928). He refused to move to sound films in the 1930s, instead producing City Lights (1931) and Modern Times (1936) without dialogue. Chaplin became increasingly political and his next film, The Great Dictator (1940), satirised Adolf Hitler. The 1940’s was a decade marked with controversy for Chaplin, and his popularity declined rapidly. He was accused of communist sympathies, while his involvement in a paternity suit and marriages to much younger women were considered scandalous. An FBI investigation was opened on Chaplin, and he was eventually forced to leave the United States and settle in Switzerland. He abandoned the Tramp for his later films, which include Monsieur Verdoux (1947), Limelight (1952), A King in New York (1957), and A Countess From Hong Kong (1967).

Chaplin wrote, directed, produced, edited, scored, and starred in most of his films. He was a perfectionist, and his financial independence meant he often spent years on the development and production of a picture. His films are characterised by slapstick combined with pathos, and often feature the Tramp struggling against adversity. Many contain social and political themes, as well as autobiographical elements. In 1972, as part of a renewed appreciation for his work, Chaplin received an Honorary Academy Award for “the incalculable effect he has had in making motion pictures the art form of this century”. He continues to be held in high regard, with The Gold RushCity Lights,Modern Times, and The Great Dictator often ranked among the greatest films of all time.

Stage comedy and vaudeville

Chaplin quickly began work in another role, touring with his brother—who was also pursuing an acting career—in a comedy sketch called Repairs.   He left the troupe in May 1906, and joined the juvenile comedy act Casey’s Circus.   Chaplin’s speciality with the company was a burlesque of Dick Turpin and the music hall star “Dr. Bodie.” It was popular with audiences and Chaplin became the star of the show. When they finished touring in July 1907, the 18-year-old was an accomplished comedy performer.   Several months of unemployment followed, however, and Chaplin lived a solitary existence while lodging with a family in Kennington. He attempted to develop a solo comedy act, but his Jewish impersonation was poorly received and he performed it only once.

By 1908, Sydney Chaplin had become a star of Fred Karno‘s prestigious comedy company.   In February, he managed to secure a two-week trial for his younger brother. Karno was initially wary, thinking Chaplin a “pale, puny, sullen-looking youngster” who “looked much too shy to do any good in the theatre.”   But the teenager made an impact on his first night at the London Coliseum, winning more laughs in his small role than the star, and he was quickly signed to a contract. His salary was £3 10s a week.   Chaplin began by playing a series of minor parts, eventually progressing to starring roles in 1909.   In April 1910, he was given the lead in a new sketch, Jimmy the Fearless It was a big success, and Chaplin received considerable press attention.

Karno selected his new star to join a fraction of the company that toured North America’s vaudeville circuit; he also signed Chaplin to a new contract, which doubled his pay.   The young comedian headed the show and impressed American reviewers, being described as “one of the best pantomime artists ever seen here.”   His most successful role was a drunk called the Inebriate Swell, which drew him considerable recognition.  The tour lasted 21 months, and the troupe—which also included Stan Laurel of later Laurel and Hardy fame—returned to England in June 1912.   Chaplin recalled that he “had a disquieting feeling of sinking back into a depressing commonplaceness”, and was therefore “elated” when a new tour began in October.

Entering films (1914–1917) – Keystone

Chaplin (left) in his first film appearance, Making a Living (1914)

The Tramp debuts in Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914), Chaplin’s second released film

Chaplin was six months into the second American tour when his manager received a telegram from the New York Motion Picture Company (NYMPC). It asked, “Is there a man named Chaffin in your company or something like that”, with a request that that this comedian contact the company. A member of NYMPC had seen Chaplin perform (accounts of whom and where vary) and felt that he would make a good replacement for Fred Mace, star of their Keystone Studios who intended to leave.   Chaplin thought the Keystone comedies “a crude mélange of rough and rumble”, but liked the idea of working in films and justified, “Besides, it would mean a new life.”   He met with the company, and a contract was drawn up in July 1913. After some adjustments, Chaplin signed with Keystone on 25 September.   The contract stipulated a year’s work at $150 a week.

Chaplin arrived in Los Angeles, home of the Keystone studio, in early December 1913.  His boss was Mack Sennett, who initially expressed concern that the 24-year-old looked too young. Chaplin reassured him, “I can make up as old as you like.”   He was not used in a picture until late January, during which time the comedian attempted to learn the processes of filmmaking.   Making a Living marked his film debut, released 2 February 1914. Chaplin strongly disliked the picture, but one review picked him out as “a comedian of the first water.”   For his second appearance in front of cameras, Chaplin selected the costume with which he became identified. He described the process in his autobiography:

“I wanted everything to be a contradiction: the pants baggy, the coat tight, the hat small and the shoes large … I added a small moustache, which, I reasoned, would add age without hiding my expression. I had no idea of the character. But the moment I was dressed, the clothes and the makeup made me feel the person he was. I began to know him, and by the time I walked on stage he was fully born.”

The film was Mabel’s Strange Predicament, but “the Tramp” character, as it became known, debuted to audiences in Kid Auto Races at Venice—shot later but released two days earlier.   Chaplin adopted the character as his screen persona, and attempted to make suggestions for the films he appeared in. These ideas were dismissed by his directors. During the filming of his tenth picture he clashed with director Mabel Normand, and was almost released from his contract. Sennett kept him on, however, when a request arrived for more Chaplin films. With an insurance of $1,500 promised in case of failure, Sennett also allowed Chaplin to direct his own film.

Caught in the Rain (issued 4 May 1914), Chaplin’s directorial debut, was among Keystone’s most successful releases to date.   Chaplin proceeded to direct almost every short film in which he appeared for Keystone, approximately one per week, which he remembered as the most exciting time of his career.   His films introduced a slower, more expressive form of comedy than the typical Keystone farce, and he developed a large fan base.[75] In November 1914, Chaplin appeared in the first feature length comedy film, Tillie’s Punctured Romance, directed by Sennett and starring Marie Dressler. Chaplin had only a supporting role, but the movie’s success meant it was pivotal in advancing his career.   When Chaplin’s contract came up for renewal at the end of the year, he asked for $1,000 a week. Sennett refused this amount as too large, and so the comedian waited to receive an offer from another studio.

Essanay

Chaplin and Edna Purviance, his regular leading lady, in Work (1915)

The Essanay Film Manufacturing Company sent Chaplin an offer of $1,250 a week with a signing bonus of $10,000. This large amount was irresistible to him, and in late December 1914 he travelled to Chicago to join the studio.  Chaplin was unimpressed with the conditions there, and after making one film he moved to the company’s small studio in Niles, California.  There, Chaplin began to form a stock company of regular players, including Leo WhiteBud Jamison, Paddy McGuire and Billy Armstrong. In San Francisco he recruited a leading lady—Edna Purviance.   She went on to appear in 35 films with Chaplin over eight years.  The pair also formed a romantic relationship that lasted into 1917.

Chaplin asserted a high level of control over his pictures, and started to put more time and care into each film.   There was a month-long wait between the release of his second production, A Night Out, and his third, The Champion.   The final seven Essanay films, of which there were 14, were all produced with this slower pace.   Chaplin also began to alter his screen persona, which had attracted some criticism at Keystone for its “mean, crude, and brutish” nature.   The character became more gentle and romantic, with The Tramp (April 1915) considered a particular turning point in his development.   The use of pathos was developed further with The Bank, as Chaplin adopted a sad ending. Robinson notes that this was an innovation in comedy films, and marked the time when serious critics began to appreciate his work.   At Essanay, writes film scholar Simon Louvish, Chaplin “found the themes and the settings that would define the Tramp’s world.”

During 1915, Chaplin became a cultural phenomenon. Shops were stocked with Chaplin merchandise, he was featured in cartoons and comic strips, and several songs were written about the star.   In July, a journalist for Motion Picture Magazine wrote that “Chaplinitis” had spread across America.   As his fame grew worldwide, he became the first international film star.   With his Essanay contract coming to an end, and fully aware of his popularity, Chaplin requested a $150,000 signing bonus from his next studio. He received several offers, including UniversalFox, and Vitagraph, the best of which came from the Mutual Film Corporation at $10,000 a week.

Mutual

By 1916, Chaplin was a global phenomenon. Here he shows off some of his merchandise, c. 1918

A contract was negotiated with Mutual that amounted to $670,000 a year, which Robinson says made Chaplin—at 26 years old—one of the highest paid people in the world.   The high salary shocked the public and was widely reported in the press.   John R. Freuler, the studio President, explained, “We can afford to pay Mr Chaplin this large sum annually because the public wants Chaplin and will pay for him.”

Mutual gave Chaplin his own Los Angeles studio to work in, which opened in March 1916.   He added two key members to his stock company, Albert Austin and Eric Campbell, and embarked on a series of elaborate productions: The FloorwalkerThe FiremanThe Vagabond,One A.M. and The Count.   For The Pawnshop he recruited the actor Henry Bergman, who was to work with Chaplin for 30 years.   Behind the Screen and The Rink finished off Chaplin’s releases for 1916. The Mutual contract stipulated that Chaplin release a two-reel film every four weeks, which he had managed to meet. With the new year, however, Chaplin began to demand more time.   He made only four more films for Mutual over the next ten months of 1917: Easy StreetThe CureThe Immigrant and The Adventurer.   With their careful construction—and in the case of Easy Street and The Immigrant, their social commentary—these films are considered by Chaplin scholars to be among his finest work.   Later in life, Chaplin referred to his Mutual years as “the happiest period of my career.”

Chaplin was the subject of a backlash in the British media for not fighting in World War I.   He defended himself, revealing that he had registered for the draft but was not asked to fight.   Despite this campaign Chaplin was a favourite with the troops, and his popularity continued to grow worldwide. The name of Charlie Chaplin was said to be “a part of the common language of almost every country”, and according to Harper’s Weekly his “little, baggy-trousered figure” was “universally familiar.”  In 1917, Chaplin imitators were widespread enough for the star to take legal action, and it was reported that nine out of ten men attended costume parties dressed as the Tramp.   The same year, a study by the Boston Society for Psychical Research concluded that Chaplin was “an American obsession.”   The actress Minnie Maddern Fiske wrote in Harper’s Weekly that “a constantly increasing body of cultured, artistic people are beginning to regard the young English buffoon, Charles Chaplin, as an extraordinary artist, as well as a comic genius.”

First National (1918–1922)

A Dog’s Life (1918). It was around this time that Chaplin began to conceive the Tramp as “a sort of Pierrot“, or sad clown.

Mutual were patient with Chaplin’s decreased rate of output, and the contract ended amicably. The star’s primary concern in finding a new distributor was independence; Sydney Chaplin, then his business manager, told the press, “Charlie [must] be allowed all the time he needs and all the money for producing [films] the way he wants … It is quality, not quantity, we are after.”   In June 1917, Chaplin signed to complete eight films for First National Exhibitors’ Circuit in return for $1 million.  He chose to build a new studio, situated on five acres of land off Sunset Boulevard, with production facilities of the highest order.   It was completed in January 1918, and Chaplin was given freedom over the making of his pictures.

A Dog’s Life, released April 1918, was the first film under the new contract. Chaplin paid yet more concern to story construction, and began treating the Tramp as “a sort of Pierrot.”   The film was described by Louis Delluc as “cinema’s first total work of art.”   Chaplin then embarked on the Third Liberty Bond campaign, touring the United States for one month to raise money for the Allies of World War I.   He also produced a short propaganda film, donated to the government for fund-raising, called The Bond. Chaplin’s next release was war-based, placing the Tramp in the trenches for Shoulder Arms. Associates warned him against making a comedy about the war, but he recalled, “Dangerous or not, the idea excited me.”   It took four months to produce, eventually released in October 1918 at 45 minutes long, and was highly successful.

Mildred Harris, founding United Artists, and The Kid

In September 1918, Chaplin married the 17-year-old actress Mildred Harris. It was a hushed affair conducted at a registry office; Harris had revealed she was pregnant, and the star was eager to avoid controversy.   Soon after, this pregnancy was found to be a false alarm.   Chaplin’s unhappiness with the union was matched by his dissatisfaction with First National.   After the release of Shoulder Arms, he requested more money from the company, which was refused. Frustrated with their lack of concern for quality,  Chaplin joined forces with Douglas FairbanksMary Pickford, and D. W. Griffith to form a new distribution company—United Artists, established in January 1919.  The “revolutionary” arrangement gave the four partners complete control over their pictures, which they were to fund personally.   Chaplin was eager to start with the new company, and offered to buy out his contract with First National. They declined this, and insisted that he complete the final six films he owed them.

The Kid (1921), with Jackie Coogan, combined comedy with drama and was Chaplin’s first film to exceed an hour.

Chaplin felt that marriage stunted his creativity, and he struggled over the production of his next film, Sunnyside. Harris was pregnant during this period, and on 7 July 1919, she gave birth to a boy. Norman Spencer Chaplin was born malformed, and died three days later.   The event seems to have influenced Chaplin’s work, as he planned a film that turned the Tramp into the care-taker of a young boy.   For this new venture, Chaplin also wished to “do something more” than comedy and, according to Louvish, “make his mark on a changed world.”   Filming on The Kid began in August 1919, with four-year-old Jackie Coogan his co-star.  It soon occurred to Chaplin that it was turning into a large project, so to placate First National, he halted production and quickly filmed A Day’s Pleasure. Both it and Sunnyside were considered a disappointment by viewers.

The Kid was in production until May 1920.   Shortly before this, Chaplin and his wife had separated after 18 months of marriage—they were “irreconcilably mismated”, he remembered.  Chaplin became fearful that Harris would claim The Kid as part of the divorce proceedings, so packed the 400,000-foot negative into crates and travelled to Salt Lake City to cut the film in a hotel room.   At 68 minutes, it was his longest picture to date. Dealing with issues of poverty and parent–child separation, The Kid is thought to be influenced by Chaplin’s own childhood  and was the first film to combine comedy and drama.   It was released in January 1921 to instant success, and by 1924 had been screened in over 50 countries.

Chaplin spent five months on his next film, the two-reeler The Idle Class.   Following its September 1921 release, Chaplin chose to return to England for the first time in almost a decade. Robinson writes, “The scenes that awaited him in London were astonishing. His homecoming was a triumph hardly paralleled in the twentieth century.”  Chaplin was away for five weeks, and later wrote a book about the trip.   He subsequently worked to fulfil his First National contract, and released Pay Day, his final two-reeler, in February 1922. The Pilgrim was delayed by distribution disagreements with the studio, and released a year later.

Silent features (1923–1938) – A Woman of Paris and The Gold Rush

Having satisfied his First National contract, Chaplin was free to make his first picture as an independent producer. In November 1922 he began filming A Woman of Paris, a romantic drama about ill-fated lovers.  Chaplin intended it as a star-making vehicle for Edna Purviance, and did not appear in the picture himself other than in a brief, uncredited cameo.   He wished for the film to have a realistic feel, and directed his cast to give restrained performances. In real life, he explained, “men and women try to hide their emotions rather than seek to express them.”  Filming took seven months, followed by three months of editing the large negative.   A Woman of Paris premiered in September 1923 and was acclaimed for its revolutionarily subtle approach.   The public, however, seemed to have little interest in a Chaplin film without Chaplin, and it was a box-office disappointment.   The filmmaker was hurt by this failure—he had long wanted to produce a dramatic film and was proud of the result—and withdrew A Woman of Paris from circulation as soon as he could.  During production of the film, Chaplin had been involved with the actress Pola Negri, a romantic pairing that received vast media interest. In January 1923, the pair announced their engagement; by July they had separated, leading to speculation that the relationship was a publicity stunt.

The Tramp resorts to eating his boot in a famous scene from The Gold Rush (1925)

Chaplin returned to comedy for his next film. Setting high standards, he told himself, “This next film must be an epic! The Greatest!”   Inspired by a photograph of the 1898 Klondike Gold Rush, and later the story of the Donner Party, he made “an epic comedy out of grim subject matter.”  In The Gold Rush, the Tramp is a lonely prospector fighting adversity and looking for love amid the historic event. With Georgia Hale his new leading lady, Chaplin began filming the picture in February 1924.   It was an elaborate production that included location shooting in the Truckee mountains with 600 extras, extravagant sets, and special effects.   The last scene was not shot until May 1925, after 15 months. At a cost of almost $1 million, Chaplin felt it was the best film he had made to that point.  The Gold Rush opened in August 1925 and became one of the highest-grossing films of the silent era with a profit of $5 million.   It contains some of Chaplin’s most famous gags, such as the Tramp eating his shoe and the “Dance of the Rolls,” and critic Geoffrey Macnab has called it “the quintessential Chaplin film.”   Chaplin later said it was the film he would most like to be remembered for.

Lita Grey and The Circus

While making The Gold Rush, Chaplin married for the second time. Mirroring the circumstances of his first union, Lita Grey was a teenage actress—originally set to star in The Gold Rush—whose surprise announcement of pregnancy forced Chaplin into marriage. She was 16 and he was 35, meaning Chaplin could have been charged with statutory rape under California law.   He therefore arranged a discreet marriage in Mexico on 24 November 1924.   When their son, Charles Spencer Chaplin, Jr, was born on 5 May 1925, Chaplin sent Grey and the child into hiding: it was seen as too close to their wedding, so a fake birth announcement was made to the press at the end of June.

Lita Grey, Chaplin’s second wife, in 1925. Their unhappy marriage and bitter divorce was a great strain for the star.

Chaplin was markedly unhappy with the marriage, and spent long hours at the studio to avoid seeing his wife.   Soon after The Gold Rush’s release he was at work on a new film, The Circus.   Chaplin built a story around the idea of walking a tightrope while besieged by monkeys, which became the film’s “climactic incident,” and turned The Tramp into the accidental star of a circus.   David Robinson notes that the film provided “a welcome distraction” from the “wretchedness” of his home life; Grey was pregnant for a second time, frustrating Chaplin and exacerbating difficulties between the pair. Their second son, Sydney Earle Chaplin, was born on 30 March 1926.   Filming on The Circus was continuing steadily when a fire broke out on 28 September, destroying the set. Although the studio was quickly brought back into operation, it marked the beginning of severe difficulties for Chaplin.   In November, Grey took their children and left the family home. Unwilling to allow his film to be drawn into the divorce proceedings, Chaplin announced that production on The Circus had been temporarily suspended.

Grey’s lawyers issued their bill of divorce on 10 January 1927.   Louvish and Robinson believe the document, which ran to an exceptional 52 pages, was designed to ruin Chaplin’s public image: allegations of infidelity and abuse were bolstered with descriptions of his “abnormal, unnatural, perverted and degenerate sexual desires.”   Chaplin was reported to be in the state of a nervous breakdown, as the story became headline news and pirated copies of the document were read by the public.   Eager to end the case without further scandal, Chaplin’s lawyers agreed to a cash settlement of $600,000—the largest awarded by American courts at that time.   Groups formed across America calling for his films to be banned, but the star’s fanbase was strong enough to survive the scandal and he was heartened by declarations of support.

Production on The Circus resumed, and the film was completed in October 1927.   It was released the following January to a positive reception.   At the 1st Academy Awards, Chaplin was given a special award “For versatility and genius in acting, writing, directing and producing The Circus.”   The Lita Grey affair was soon forgotten, but Chaplin was deeply affected by it; the stress of the ordeal turned his hair white, and both his second wife and The Circus received only a passing mention in his autobiography. He permanently associated the film with this stress and misery, and struggled to work on it in his later years.

City Lights

“I was determined to continue making silent films … I was a pantomimist and in that medium I was unique and, without false modesty, a master.”

—Chaplin explaining his defiance against sound in the 1930’s

By the time The Circus was released, Hollywood had witnessed the introduction of sound films. Chaplin was cynical about this new medium and the technical shortcomings it presented, believing that “talkies” lacked the artistry of silent films.   He was also hesitant to change the formula that had brought him such success, and feared that giving the Tramp a voice would limit his international appeal.   He therefore rejected the new Hollywood craze and proceeded to develop a silent film. Chaplin was nonetheless anxious about this decision, and would remain so throughout its production.

City Lights (1931), regarded as one of Chaplin’s finest works

When filming began at the end of 1928, Chaplin had been working on the story for almost a year.   City Lights followed the Tramp’s love for a blind flower girl and his efforts to raise money for her sight-saving operation. It was a challenging production that lasted 21 months, with Chaplin later confessing that he “had worked himself into a neurotic state of wanting perfection.”  One advantage Chaplin found in sound technology was the ability to record a musical score for the film; he also took the opportunity to mock the talkies, opening City Lights with a squeaky, unintelligible speech that “burlesqued the metallic tones of early talky voices.”

Chaplin finished editing the picture in December 1930, by which time silent films were an anachronism.   The surprise preview showing in Los Angeles was not a success, and Chaplin left the movie theatre “with a feeling of two years’ work and two million dollars having gone down the drain.”   A showing for the press, however, produced positive reviews. One journalist wrote, “Nobody in the world but Charlie Chaplin could have done it. He is the only person that has that peculiar something called ‘audience appeal’ in sufficient quality to defy the popular penchant for movies that talk.”   Given its general release in January 1931, City Lights proved to be a popular and financial success—eventually grossing over $3 million.   It is often referred to as Chaplin’s finest accomplishment, and film critic James Agee believed the closing scene to be “the greatest piece of acting and the highest moment in movies.”

Fading popularity (1939–1952) – The Great Dictator

The 1940’s saw Chaplin face a series of controversies, both in his work and his personal life, which changed his fortunes and severely affected his popularity in America. The first of these was a new boldness in expressing his political beliefs. Deeply disturbed by the surge of militaristic nationalism in 1930s world politics, Chaplin found that he could not keep these issues out of his work: “How could I throw myself into feminine whimsy or think of romance or the problems of love when madness was being stirred up by a hideous grotesque, Adolf Hitler?”  He chose to make The Great Dictator—a “satirical attack on fascism” and his “most overtly political film.”  There were strong parallels between Chaplin and the German dictator, having been born four days apart and raised in similar circumstances. It was widely noted that Hitler wore the same toothbrush moustache as the Tramp, and it was this physical resemblance that formed the basis of Chaplin’s story.

Chaplin satirising Adolf Hitler in The Great Dictator (1940)

Chaplin spent two years developing the script, and began filming in September 1939.   He had submitted to using spoken dialogue, partly out of acceptance that he had no other choice but also because he recognised it as a better method for delivering a political message.  Making a comedy about Hitler was seen as highly controversial, but Chaplin’s financial independence allowed him to take the risk.”  I was determined to go ahead,” he later wrote, “for Hitler must be laughed at.”  Chaplin replaced the Tramp (while wearing similar attire) with “A Jewish Barber”, a reference to the Nazi party’s belief that the star was a Jew.   In a dual performance he also plays the dictator “Adenoid Hynkel”, a parody of Hitler which Maland sees as revealing the “megalomania, narcissism, compulsion to dominate, and disregard for human life” of the German dictator.

The Great Dictator spent a year in production, and was released in October 1940.   There was a vast amount of publicity around the film, with a critic for the New York Times calling it “the most eagerly awaited picture of the year”, and it was one of the biggest money-makers of the era.   The response from critics was less enthusiastic. Although most agreed that it was a brave and worthy film, many considered the ending inappropriate.   Chaplin concluded the film with a six-minute speech in which he looked straight at the camera and professed his personal beliefs.   The monologue drew significant debate for its overt preaching and continues to attract attention to this day.   Maland has identified it as triggering Chaplin’s decline in popularity, and writes, “Henceforth, no movie fan would ever be able to separate the dimension of politics from the star image of Charles Spencer Chaplin.”   The Great Dictator received five Academy Award nominations, including Best PictureBest Original Screenplay and Best Actor.

Final works and renewed appreciation

In the last two decades of his career, Chaplin concentrated on re-editing and scoring his old films for re-release, as well as securing their ownership and distribution rights.   In an interview he granted in 1959, the year of his 70th birthday, Chaplin stated that there was still “room for the Little Man in the atomic age.”   The first of these re-releases was The Chaplin Revue (1959), which included new versions of A Dog’s LifeShoulder Arms, and The Pilgrim.

In the 1960s, the political atmosphere gradually began to change and attention was once again directed to Chaplin’s films instead of his political views.   In July 1962, he was invested with the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters by the universities of Oxford and Durham.   In the same month, The New York Times published an editorial stating that “we do not believe the Republic would be in danger if yesterday’s unforgotten little tramp were allowed to amble down the gangplank of a steamer or plane in an American port.”   The following year, in November 1963, the Plaza Theater in New York started a year-long series of Chaplin’s films, including Monsieur Verdoux and Limelight, which gained excellent reviews from American critics on their second release.   September 1964 saw the release of Chaplin’s memoirs, My Autobiography, which he had been working on since 1957.   The 500-page book, which focussed on his early years and personal life, became a worldwide best-seller, despite criticism over the lack of information on his film career.

Shortly after the publication of his memoirs, Chaplin began work on A Countess from Hong Kong (1967), based on a script he had written for Paulette Goddard in the 1930s, which was to be his last completed film.   Set on an ocean liner, it starred Marlon Brando as an American ambassador and Sophia Loren as a stowaway found in his cabin.   Although the film had comic moments, Chaplin described it as primarily a romantic film.   Its production differed in several ways from his previous films, as he concentrated on directing and appeared on screen only in a cameo role as a seasick steward.   Instead of producing the film himself, Chaplin signed a deal with Universal Pictures and appointed his assistant, Jerome Epstein, as the producer.   A Countess from Hong Kong premiered in January 1967, to largely negative reviews.   It was also a box office failure.   Robinson writes that the film probably failed because “in the year of Bonnie and ClydeThe Dirty DozenThe GraduateWeekendand Belle de Jour, a gentle romantic comedy was an almost incomprehensible anachronism.”  Chaplin was deeply hurt by the negative reaction to his film.

Chaplin receiving his Honorary Academy Award from Jack Lemmon in 1972. It was the first time he had returned to the United States in 20 years.

Chaplin broke his ankle at the end of 1966, and had to give up his formerly active lifestyle. He also had a series of minor strokes, which marked the beginning of a slow decline in his health.   Despite the setbacks, Chaplin was soon writing a new film script, The Freak, a story of a winged girl found in South America, which he intended as a starring vehicle for his daughter, Victoria Chaplin.   His fragile health prevented the project from being realised.   In the early 1970s, Chaplin instead concentrated on the re-releases of his old films, such as The Kid and The Circus, and signed a distribution deal with Mo Rothman.   In 1971, he was given a special award from the Cannes Film Festival; the following year, he was similarly honoured by the Venice Film Festival.

In 1972, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences offered Chaplin an Honorary Award, which Robinson sees as a sign that America “wanted to make amends”. He was initially hesitant about accepting, but decided to return to the US for the first time in 20 years.  The visit attracted a large amount of press coverage, and at the Academy Awards gala, Chaplin was given a twelve-minute standing ovation, the longest in the Academy’s history.   Visibly emotional, Chaplin accepted his award for “the incalculable effect he has had in making motion pictures the art form of this century.”

Although Chaplin still had plans for future film projects, by the mid-1970’s he was very frail.   He experienced several strokes, which made it difficult for him to communicate, and he had to use a wheelchair.   His final projects were compiling a pictorial autobiography, My Life in Pictures (1974) and re-scoring A Woman of Paris for re-release in 1976.   He also appeared in a documentary about his life, The Gentleman Tramp (1975), directed by Richard Patterson.   In 1975, two years before his death Chaplin was awarded a knighthood by Queen Elizabeth II.

Chaplin’s grave in Vevey, Switzerland – Death

By October 1977, Chaplin’s health had declined to the point that he needed constant care.   In the early morning of 25 December 1977, Chaplin died at home after suffering a stroke in his sleep.   He was 88 years old. The funeral, on 27 December, was a small and private Anglican ceremony, according to his wishes. Chaplin was interred in the Vevey cemetery.   The film industry expressed their tributes upon news of his death; director René Clair wrote, “He was a monument of the cinema, of all countries and all times … the most beautiful gift the cinema made to us.”   Actor Bob Hope declared, “We were lucky to have lived in his time.”

On 1 March 1978, Chaplin’s coffin was dug up and stolen from its grave by two unemployed immigrants, Roman Wardas, from Poland, and Gantcho Ganev, from Bulgaria. The body was held ransom in an attempt to extort money from Oona Chaplin. After she refused to pay, they threatened Chaplin’s youngest children with violence. Ganev and Wardas were caught in a large police operation in May, and Chaplin’s coffin was found buried in a field in the nearby village of Noville. It was re-buried in the Vevey cemetery surrounded by reinforced concrete.   In December 1978, Wardas received a sentence of four and a half years’ imprisonment and Gantcho a suspended sentence for disturbing the peace of the dead and for the attempt of extortion.

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